Writing the first paragraph of your novel is the scariest part. I mean, a lot is resting on this paragraph. It’s your reader’s first introduction into your world. In a lot of cases, this paragraph will determine whether or not they’ll pick the book up off of a shelf in the bookstore. If you’re looking to traditionally publish, the stakes can be even higher. Most editors want to see the first ten pages of your novel, and if the first paragraph doesn’t get them right away, then you’re doomed and your book will end up in their slush pile or worse the trash. Your lead paragraph will be your knight in shining armor and your first defense to preventing these two grim outcomes for your novel.
How do I write a great lead paragraph?
To write a good lead paragraph, you want to answer the questions who, what, where, when, why, and how without spoiling the entire book for your readers. By answering or presenting these questions write away, your reader will have loads of questions that they need to read your book to answer. I know I’ve found a really good lead paragraph when it leaves me gasping in my seat. It makes me want to compulsively buy a book on the shelf and it gets the better of me every time! These are the kinds of lead paragraphs you want to present to your readers. There are several essential parts to a lead paragraph that go beyond the hook, which I’ve covered in another post. Here are some tips to making a lead paragraph that will help it shine.
Start with a Creative and Intriguing Lead Paragraph
Starting your story out with something unique to your main character, setting, or plot can immediately draw people in. Is your main character funny? Start the book off with a punchline. Is your book a horror novel? Begin with something absolutely terrifying. You want to pose a couple of questions here, but not too many. If there are too many open-ended statements without some solid facts about your character, setting, or plot, you’ll leave your reader hanging and they may become disinterested. Think of what is most unique to your story and to you, and you’ll begin to have a great lead paragraph.
Write a Killer Hook
I’ve covered hooks exclusively in another post, but I’ll give you the brief meat and potatoes here. Your first sentence has to be the sexiest sentence your readers have ever seen. Be clear, but portray some kind of conflict in your hook. Conflict is juicy, and that’s what your readers are here for. If there wasn’t any conflict in your book, your readers wouldn’t be reading it. Starting with a powerful first sentence can make or break a lead paragraph. While it’s not essential to have a stellar lead, it will definitely add some power to your paragraph. Be sure to check out my other post if you want to learn more about hooks!
Use STRONG Verbs
Writing in the passive voice can kill your lead paragraph. Passive verbs are verbs that are preceded by the verb “to be.” For example, “Timmy was playing in the yard.” See the problem there? Passive verbs make your writing sound weak and shaky. Rewriting the sentence as “Timmy played in the yard.” Makes your work structurally stronger. You’re a writer who means business, not some weak-kneed newbie who doesn’t know what they mean to say. Command your story. You are the god of this world, and the audience needs to know it.
Which is more interesting? “Something crazy happened to Jimmy Blanco today,” or, “Behind Alphonse’s, someone in a dark coat pulled a gun on Jimmy Blanco today.” By being specific but still asking questions, you can make your reader want to know what comes next. “Something crazy” is not at all descriptive and takes the drama out of the action and makes your reader bored. Pull them in by avoiding gummy words like thing, something, or other ambiguous words. Don’t be shy. Mystery does not come from ambiguous words, but ambiguous circumstances.
Ask Leading Questions without Asking
Start by writing out answers to all of the basic questions. Who is the book about? Is the main character present in the first paragraph? If not, you may want to consider rewriting your opening scene. No one wants to hear about the place this story occupies before they learn about the main character. What is this book about? By starting your work in conflict, you can make your readers ask this exact question. Tease at the main conflict of the book or tell them exactly what kind of trauma your main character is experiencing at the moment. Both will pull your reader in. Where does the story take place? Now, introduce the setting. Especially if your setting is a bizarre one, describe it in detail. When? At what point in the story does this paragraph take place? You can tell your readers directly, or leave a little mystery here. Especially if this is a flashback panel, leaving a little confusion as to when it exactly happens in the timeline can keep readers interested. Why? What horrible thing is happening to the main character and why? If you answer this question only partially, readers will stay for the rest of the book to find out.
Here are examples of two different lead paragraphs. I’ve drafted these up about a guy named Jimmy Blanco, but instead of a gun to his head, he suffers something much worse. I’ve included all of the essential questions, direct verbs, and a little bit of mystery in one of these paragraphs. Which one do you think is better?
It was a cold day in January when Jimmy Blanco found out his mother died. He stood outside the back of Alphonse’s pizza joint with a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other still trying to take everything in. His Pa didn’t know how it happened. They just found her hanging upside down in the cellar, shackles around her ankles, blood drained entirely out of her. No one knew who did it and no one knew why. Jimmy supposed it was because of his family’s rotten luck.
A puff of cold air escaped Jimmy Blanco’s lips and he wondered if his mother had been cold when she died. They found her hanging upside down in the cellar, shackles around her ankles, blood drained entirely out of her. Jimmy imagined her pale face and gaping mouth, eyes rolled back and shriveled like a raisin. He stamped his cigarette out underneath his boot and checked his watch. Three minutes before he had to go back into Alphonse’s. He wondered if he should call out. Who did it? he wondered. And why? Of course, it would happen to him. Jimmy Blanco had rotten luck.
Hopefully, it’s clear which paragraph is the better one! By being strong, concise and tantalizing, your reader is going to shake in their seat waiting for the rest. Lead paragraphs are especially important in short stories because there isn’t that much content, to begin with. If you want your reader to stick around for one whole sitting and read through your entire short story, your lead paragraph better be the best one they’ve ever seen.
Here’s what I’d like you to do, dear author. Go through each of these tips that I’ve provided for you and write your own lead paragraph. Take some serious time with it, really make it polish. Then, once you’re all done, post your lead paragraph in the comments below! I’d love to read them and tell you what I think. You’d be surprised how helpful a little exercise like this one can be when you’re in a really bad writer’s block. If you do this exercise every day for two weeks, you’ll have the best lead paragraphs in the west. I hope these tips will help you become a better author! If they did, I’d love to know and I hope you have a wonderful day writing!